On Tuesday night, a few hours after North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s call to abolish the State Board of Education and remove science and history curricula from K-5 classrooms was published by multiple news outlets in an excerpt from his forthcoming memoir, Robinson spoke about the decline of public schools and emphasized the need for greater parental involvement in education during a roundtable at the Durham Armory.
Hosted by Americans For Prosperity and the Libre Initiative, the event attracted around 100 people—mostly parents, according to a show of hands—who gobbled up appetizers (pimento cheese crostini, mini chicken salad sandwiches, Classical Christian Education booklets) before settling in for the roundtable.
The panel, which included Robinson, North Carolina House Rep. Erin Paré (R-Wake), and several representatives from the event’s hosting organization, kicked off their hour-long discussion by attempting to answer the question “Where does learning happen?”
“It’s not going to happen the way a lot of these bureaucrats hoped that it would happen, through standardized tests or trying to force agendas on people,” Robinson said. “It happens when we have a classroom that is built on the premise of their own education, not any type of indoctrination, not any type of ideology, but simply on the methods, tried and true methods that we know that work.”
Robinson didn’t offer specifics on said “indoctrination,” perhaps because the task force he launched last year to uncover evidence of liberal brainwashing in public schools failed spectacularly.
The rest of the discussion centered around parental choice in education, a right-wing initiative that aims to give parents more control over where they send their children to school and what they learn.
“One of the things that has gone wrong in public schools right now, sadly, is that we view public schools more as a danger than we have as a school,” Robinson said. “… Our education system is going to continue to decline if parents do not feel like they are in control of their children’s education.”
With an expanded school voucher program—also known as Educational Savings Accounts, or ESAs—more parents would have the option to homeschool their kids or enroll them in charter or private schools, panelists argued.
“We are by no means advocating for anything like an opposition between public and private schools,” said Richard Bethencourt, grassroots engagement director for The LIBRE Initiative-North Carolina Raleigh chapter. “We are for all schools—not just these but magnet schools, charter schools, or homeschools, they all come together to work for the best. Each parent, and each child, decides what is best for them.”
While panelists made a compelling argument for voucher expansion, sharing stories about students with disabilities and language barriers who have benefited from alternatives to public schooling, they failed to mention that the ESAs would pull huge amounts of money from the state’s education coffers, leaving public schools even more desperately underfunded.
Panelists cited Florida and Arizona as ESA success stories, but the facts say otherwise: in Arizona, vouchers tend to cover—at most—two-thirds of private school tuition costs, forcing parents to dish out thousands of their own dollars, and in Florida, students with ESAs have ended up in poorly regulated charter schools that shut down with little or no notice.
As Robinson wrapped up the discussion with a call for the federal government to invest in ESAs instead of forgiving student loan debt, my tablemate Ryan Jenkins, who serves as the president of the Progressive Caucus of the North Carolina Democratic Party, buried his head in his hands.
“You want to fix schools in North Carolina? Pay goddamn teachers what they’re worth, put money into the school system and just fix it,” Jenkins said. “It’s not that hard. There are teachers who do this every day of their lives, and they are telling us to do the opposite of what these assholes are.”
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